I was all arms and legs, ‘squito bites and scabs, the summer I was ten. My feet were like dog pads from so many barefoot summers, which I find funny now that I can scarcely run from my bed to the toilet without at least a pair of socks between my delicate extremities and the hardwood floor. My mother remarried and relocated that summer from small town Watertown, South Dakota, to the even smaller town of Pierre (Peer). Don’t let the honorable title “State Capitol” fool you, Pierre wasn’t much more than a village back then, comfortably nestled on the banks of the Missouri River.
I was lonesome after the move and missed my friends dearly, so I was absolutely thrilled when one of my best buddies, Debbie, came to visit her dad that summer. Debbie and I had been friends for as long as I could remember, and every minute with her was a great adventure waiting to happen. Debbie and I were two friends who probably should have had a third just to say, periodically, “Really, girls? Is that really a good idea?”, but for one week in South Dakota in the mid-seventies ... it was just the two of us! And I was beside myself!
Debbie was brave and curious and I was the perfect yes-man! Her dad lived somewhere near the river and we found ourselves there one afternoon with nothing to do. Of course, we decided to explore! We were nothing if not imaginative and could find an adventure in almost any situation.
Never afraid of getting dirty (she and I spent the better part of our childhood digging beautiful roadwork for future miniature cities), we set off toward the river. We spent what was probably close to 2 hours playing in a frog-infested sandpit before wandering off into the woods. At some point, the path we were taking arrived on the banks of the river and broke into a perfect fork. To the left were mounds and a single winding path and to the right an enchanted forest! Debbie suggested we each go in a different direction for 100 steps and then meet back to report our findings. I wasn’t terribly enthused about going into the great unknown alone, so I walked just out of eyesight, counted to 100 and walked back to wait for Debbie. Just as I expected, her way seemed much more exciting!
So, we headed to our right, traveling along with the river to our left and the deep dark woods to our right. Eventually, we came to a place where no less than seven paths entered the woods, away from the water.
Afraid I would be sent up one of the rickety paths alone and tired of counting, I simply let Debbie decide which path to take and, through a process of elimination, we chose a slightly less scary path than the one I had been eyeballing with aversion.
The chosen path went upwards into the woods away from the river and provided us much amazement until it opened to a field on the other side of the woods. The field was huge with baseball diamonds in the distance and a couple of Beagles bounding through the grass. To our left, another, only slightly wider path, would take us back into the woods. While I had visions of sunlight and puppies in my head, I followed Debbie back into the woods. This path was wider, but the trees still met in an arch over our heads making the path dark and spooky, in spite of the bright summer sun. I was a bit like a puppy myself, and quickly forgot about the field of dreams and began to take wonder in my new surroundings. In a flash, several older boys on bicycles flew by us, startling us but only briefly interrupting our adventure, to which we easily returned.
Suddenly, an old man appeared on the path. He looked rather creepy and when I say “old man”, I mean, this guy was probably in his early forties! “Have you seen my dogs?” he asked. “Yeah, I saw them over there!”, I turned and pointed back toward the clearing. Strangely, he didn’t look where I was pointing. He said, instead, “Come back here and tell me.” He stepped back a bit into a small opening in the trees. It was like a tree cave, actually, and not at all where a little girl should go to talk to an older man.
I stepped toward him but kept pointing behind me toward the clearing, which seemed a very long way away at this point. “They’re over there in the field.” I explained. “Come back here and tell me”, he said as he stepped back deeper into the tree cave and grabbed my hand.
I was definitely confused and frightened and remember his hand being clammy and strange. “Come back here and tell me.” He had dog leashes in one hand, and my hand in the other, I took note. The whole thing seemed surreal and in slow-motion.
Out of the blue, the teenagers on bikes came flying back down the path, “Hey Mister!”, they shouted, “We found your dogs!”
The man looked up for a split second at the boys and in that very moment, Debbie grabbed my other hand and RAN!
The man was hanging on and for an instant I was literally being pulled in two different directions, but the boys were yelling at the man and Debbie was determined.
My hand slipped away from the man and Debbie and I sprinted! We ran like the wind. I have a bucket full of medals confirming that I can run fast, but that day, I ran faster than anyone has ever cantered in the history of the world. We ran for our lives, not feeling the branches scratching our skin and the South Dakota earth under our feet.
We ran for our lives.
We burst out of the woods on the ricketiest of paths and slid down the bank to hide at the edge of the water. Our spindly little legs shaking and our lungs stuck in silent screams, we sat by the water ...
... waiting ....
I have no idea how long we stayed by the water. I don’t remember at what point we deemed it safe to move one. I don’t remember going home.
I am fairly certain, however, that when her dad asked, “What did you girls do today?” we said, “Nothin’”.